The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The most common criticism of Tom Clancy’s writing is–as Alec Baldwin puts it–“He can describe a pencil for three pages.”

Thankfully here we don’t get ultra-extended dialogue about the submarines or other technology, but we do end up with a nice balance between impressive technobabble (at least for those of us who are ignorant of submarines and the like), terse explanation and understandable explanation for the layman. I suppose this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, because we have John McTiernan at the helm, director of some of the finest action movies ever made (such as the original Die Hard and Predator) and a man who neither minces words nor leaves the audience floundering as someone like Tom Clancy can.

The Red October is a Soviet submarine–in 1984–which has the technology to run near-silent, with a sound that would not easily be recognized as that of a submarine thanks to the new form of engine it uses. It is captained by Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), a Lithuanian and master of naval tactics, having taught and trained many Russian naval captains. As Clancy regular and CIA agentJack Ryan (Alec Baldwin, later played by Harrison Ford for two films and Ben Affleck for one) figures out, however, Ramius and a small core of his crew, primarily the officers, are defecting from the Soviet Union and bringing the Red October with them. Jack battles skeptical government and military officials and their doubts, trying to prove his theory about the skilled captain to all of them, working behind the scenes and eventually into the middle of them to try and keep Ramius and the Red October safe for their trip to America.

Interestingly, McTiernan sets the movie up–obviously a lot of Clancy’s excessively written novel has been pared down, though I can’t profess to knowing how much of it we lost was just descriptions of submarine dimensions and torpedo operation and how much was plot, so this may be just like the book–more as an intelligence or political thriller than as a full-on action movie. Most of it is tension and buildup between Ramius and those loyal to him and a crew that is getting more confused and suspicious of the actions of their captain, the interactions between the ambassadorial representatives of the two countries, Jack Ryan’s attempts to convince government officials (including his friend Admiral James Greer, played by the great James Earl Jones and USS Dallas Commander Bart Mancuso, played by Scott Glenn). We have an action-packed climax, certainly, with submarine battles and even a one-on-one handgun manhunt and everything, but the majority of the film is more a set of mind games between all those operating within it.

As always, McTiernan and the people who work with him have set up excellently filmed shots, including primitive CGI (in some ways this and the physical compositing was actually helpful, as the important elements would stand out from the murky sea and its masses of floating specks of waste, debris, sealife and so on) and many model effects for the submarines. He cuts quickly and intelligently between characters and scenes–possibly most impressively whenever he slowly zooms into a character who is politicking–covering something up, quickly arranging a story or excuse–or who is sharing a secret with another cast member who has just spoken. Performances on this front are excellent, with a passing note for Joss Ackland as Ambassador Andrei Lysenko, who must move quickly to hide the truth of his motivations when in the office of a U.S. official trying to gain their ignorance and assistance in dealing with Ramius.

We tend to feel the claustrophobia of the subs, but not in the way that a normal person does, rather filming them quickly and comfortably like a crew member, following Mancuso down small, cramped stairways, not showing us the cramping, but showing us the speed which he moves down them, knowing exactly where to go, when to turn and how far down it is. We feel immersed in this world of technical knowledge, mathematic and spatial calculations and tactical approaches to almost every situation. We feel Clancy’s technobabble instead of enduring it; while Glenn and Sonarman 2nd Class Ronald Jones (Courtney B. Vance) have performances that enhance their believability in the role, we have the skillful camerawork and deft direction to help us feel just as at home here.

Of note, of course, is the fact that Sam Neill plays Captain 2nd Rank Vasily Borodin–naturally, for me, this was the reason for watching the film. I like Connery, Jones, Glenn, Baldwin, Skarsgård (who plays one of the loyal Soviet sub captains), Jeffrey Jones (! as a technical expert), Tim Curry (! the Red October’s doctor), I can find most of them just about anywhere–often in terribly entertaining and good films, certainly, but not with that fun flavour that I find in someone like Neill. Strangely, he seems to be the only Red October crewman who naturally speaks English that feels he should pull in an Eastern European accent when we begin to see that crew speaking English instead of Russian. It mixes with his omnipresent Kiwi accent in a strange and interesting way, but the effect is not tampered with as there was an excellent group of costumers and makeup artists, giving us a perfect feel to many of the main castmembers, Glenn as the hard-nosed military man who by no means refuses to go outside the boundaries and is willing to have his mind changed, but mostly in Neill and Connery. Neill is slicked down with clean lines, the trusted and most loyal of Ramius’ men, he is made up exactly to fit the role, just as Connery as the brilliant and mannered but obviously rebellious captain is covered in clean but sharp lines–especially his (false, of course) hair–a short, sharp brush of grey that just forward from his forehead, as if it, too, were rebellious, but had just as clear a destination as the character. Good thing, too, as apparently that bloody thing cost $20,000.

Still, I remember the first time I saw anything of this movie, when my father sat down to watch it on TV, and I saw submarines and military and immediately left the area (or ignored it, at least) because I was still in the mindset that said such things would automatically be boring. I was quite happy with this though, as I sort of expected from the cast and McTiernan, but even with the expectation I was not let down. From what I’ve seen, the best Clancy adaptation around.


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